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Fund-Raising Schemes Raise Parents' Ire in California

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Officials from several California schools who thought they had happened on new revenue sources have instead collided with parents who said the schools were using their children as marketing pawns.

The controversies illuminate a recurring question for school officials with tight budgets: How much fund-raising is too much? As financially strapped schools become more creative in their efforts to raise money, they are also having to contend with fires lit by suspicious parents.

The trouble came for South Lake Middle School in Irvine late last month when students were given authorization forms their parents could sign to switch their long-distance telephone carrier to the American Telephone & Telegraph Company.

Under an arrangement with two middleman companies--CoVenture Financial Insurance Services and Universal Network Services Inc.--the school's parent-teacher-student association would receive 10 percent of the long-distance payment from each family that signed on to the program. Students could also filter money to their school by getting friends, neighbors, or other relatives to switch to A.T.&T., at the reduced rate offered by UniNet of Newport Beach, Calif.

"It's a great way to earn money," said Robert Shean, the telecommunications director for CoVenture, based in Laguna Niguel, Calif. Mr. Shean said South Lake officials were hoping the effort would raise $150,000 this year and enable them to buy computers. He said the partnership could bring large schools almost half a million dollars a year.

Phone-Bill Math

Although the fund-raising plan was approved by Irvine's P.T.S.A., at least one parent was offended.

Tina Bartel said her daughter came home from school with a one-page math assignment that required students to apply statistics to a phone bill. Attached to the homework was a four-page solicitation for A.T.&T.

Although parents were not obligated to switch their long-distance carrier, they were encouraged to sign the homework sheet, which read: "Today you are receiving a program from ATT [sic] that will help everyone at South Lake. To see how, let's do a little math."

Ms. Bartel said she disliked the school's aggressiveness in soliciting money from parents. Demanding an apology, she pulled her daughter out of classes for two days.

Ms. Bartel said the school district has apologized to her, but the local P.T.S.A. told her it had to go to such lengths to get parents to respond to their fund-raising efforts.

A spokesman for A.T.&T. told the Los Angeles Times that the company did not endorse the effort and wanted nothing to do with it.

South Lake Middle School officials would not comment last week.

Meanwhile, CoVenture is hoping to expand the fund-raising opportunity, and has already received inquiries from interested schools in Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, Mr. Shean said.

A partnership between two schools in the San Jose school district and a computer-chip manufacturer also caused a stir last month.

The district agreed to let kindergartners and some 1st graders at Carson and Simonds elementary schools take five minutes out of their day to read a list of words. The children's voices would be instrumental in training the company's computer chips that will end up in talking educational toys.

In return, the schools and the district would split a payment of $5 per child.

Jeff Rogers, a sales manager with the San Jose-based company, Sensory Circuits Inc., said each school probably made about $2,000 through the arrangement.

He said a parent's complaint that the school was selling classroom time was quieted after he explained that the company was not trying to market its product in any way. He also agreed to hold an assembly for the children, in which he would talk about integrated circuits and what the children's role was in creating the toys.

"Sometimes it just gets a little murky to know where appropriate ends and where exploitation begins," Betty Defay, a member of the California state P.T.A., commented on the incidents.

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